INTO THE LAND OF PISCO AND POETRY

By Bridget Cowan

The pink bus screeched to a halt. An elderly, roly-poly woman waddled down the stairs, beamed a huge smile, took my hands in hers, blessed me and offered to take us to La Serena for 1,000 pesos. As we heaved our rucksacks into the bus I noticed its name in discreet lettering by the door: “El Misionero” (“The Missionary”). Sitting in the driver’s seat was a man I assumed to be the woman’s husband, accompanied by their daughter.

It was lunchtime, and as soon as we had settled down, the woman took the lid off a huge casserole dish wedged onto the front seat and ladled out enormous helpings of the typical Chilean dish of stewed black beans (called porotos).

Over lunch, she explained that the family were evangelists. They were traveling to spend the September 18 celebrations with relatives just outside La Serena, and were charging a small fee to any hitchhikers tired of waiting by the roadside and being frazzled by the sun. Only business wasn’t great – we remained the only two passengers on the dilapidated bus throughout the three-hour journey from Vallenar.

Time was of the essence, so Papa didn’t stop to eat his beans. He just went on driving at the same steady speed while his daughter tucked a napkin into his collar, balanced a full bowl on the steering wheel and placed a spoon in his hand. We watched him, mesmerized, as he spooned up the mouthfuls, never once taking his eyes from the road. The girl hovered around adding extra salt and pouring him Coca-Cola whenever he grunted a request.

Meanwhile, Momma had disappeared into the back of the bus to wash the other plates. No one realized she was locked in the tiny toilet until half an hour later when the daughter remembered her existence and jumped up screaming “Mama!” The key had fallen out of the door, so we all got down on our hands and knees, and scrabbled about for it on the spotlessly clean floor. All except Papa, that is, who simply plodded on along the seemingly endless road to La Serena.

This is where the desert starts. Although dry and parched in comparison to the Central Region of Chile, sudden patches of pink, violet and yellow flowers refreshed my eyes which, after a couple of days around Bahia Inglesa further up north, felt as if they had been burnt dry by the sun’s reflection off the white sand and aqua-blue water.

You’ll find larger expanses of flowers by turning off the main road down any of the dirt tracks, which eventually lead to random, remote hamlets. It’s definitely worth venturing off because many of the delicate flowers don’t bloom by the side of the main road, where the high fume levels from the continuous traffic discourage their growth. One of the most beautiful flowers is called the “the virgin’s tears,” and, suitably, its lilac head droops sadly downwards.

Dropping down into La Serena, the clouds of mist coming in off the sea were a welcoming, cooling sight. They are obviously a regular feature of the port town, as the locals told us, “Oh, it’s always cloudy here.”

In town, beyond the parade of trendy, modern clothes shops, there is a large hall full of little stalls dedicated to the more traditional handicrafts of the region, including dried fruit, woven baskets and soft, hand-knitted jumpers. After stocking up on dried papaya, apples and figs, and buying huge mushroom-shaped straw hats to keep the sun off, we got on the road to the renowned Valle de Elqui.

Famed for UFOs, hippie communes, spiritual groups, pisco and one of Chile’s most famous poets, Gabriela Mistral, the valley is about an hour and a half by car from La Serena. Weeping willows and greenness follow the course of the river and barren, steep hillsides shoot up away from it, eventually leading to snow-capped peaks in the distance.

For those wanting to renew their visa, and avoid the Mendoza-run, the Argentinean border is a three-day horse trek away from Elqui’s village of Monte Grande. This is the last biggish village in the valley and is where Mistral was a school teacher. There is a small museum dedicated to the Nobel Prize-winning poet and an imposing statue of her in its plaza. Her grave is a short walk up the hill away from the center of town.

Up until five years ago it was possible to camp anywhere along the valley, but unfortunately the rubbish left by inconsiderate campers means the entire valley has now been closed off, and it’s difficult to free camp anywhere. Instead there are campsites and cabanas of varying degrees of luxury, and an ecological vibe which is only taken seriously by some property owners. Eco-friendly cabins run on solar energy and have sewage cleaning systems, whilst others simply let sewage run into the ground, from where it presumably runs into the river.

Not a pleasant thought for either the environment or for the bathers who dare the icy waters of the river to complete the valley’s ritual blood-cleansing exercise. This involves jumping into the rocky stream seven times and in-between each session letting the sun dry you until you feel hot, before jumping back in again. The recommendation from one valley dweller who convinced me he lives by the ritual is not to include your head – the water is so cold that the temperature change merely gives you a headache rather than achieving any beneficial effects. Personally, I wouldn’t know – I chickened out and simply bathed in the sun.